Scottish Government drive to help deprived students ‘flawed’

Flagship Scottish Government plans to get deprived youngsters into university have come under fire after it emerged student hopefuls from across all of Shetland have been frozen out from “clearing” spots at the country’s top institution.

There are now fears that vast swathes of Scots youngsters from poorer backgrounds are being missed because of the “flawed” system which uses entire postcode areas to define who lives in a deprived area.

Edinburgh University. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Edinburgh University. Picture: Ian Georgeson

It emerged last week that Edinburgh University will use this year’s clearing process to award places to those from deprived areas. About 1,700 Scots got a university place through the clearing system last year which matches applicants to courses that have yet to be filled.

Shetland was excluded by Edinburgh because it contains none of the poorest 20 postcodes in Scotland which get preferential treatment as part of Scottish Government directives to open up access to university.

But Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said hundreds of youngsters on the islands are in poverty and postcodes are too “blunt” a measure to define deprivation because most will have a mix of affluent and poorer pockets.

“I have serious concerns about this policy to restrict clearing places to those from the SIMD20 postcodes,” Mr Scott said in a letter to Edinburgh University principal Professor Gordon Mathieson.

“This is a crude mechanism to target those most disadvantaged young people.”

He added: “There is no one simple and faultless measure of deprivation but it is stating the obvious to say that a prospective student’s personal circumstances cannot be ascertained solely by their postcode.”

The letter was also sent to Education Secretary John Swinney and Scotland’s Commissioner for Fair Access, Sir Peter Scott, who has also criticised the “postcode” system. A paper from the Commission on Widening Access, published in March 2016, stated that “SIMD, as an area based measure, is considered too blunt to identify individual circumstances”.

SNP ministers want 20 per cent of universities’ Scottish student numbers to be from the 20 per cent of postcodes classed as the poorest in Scotland by 2030.

The postcode approach has also been criticised by University of Edinburgh professor of education policy Lindsay Paterson, who highlighted figures suggesting that 65 per cent of young people from low income households do not live in the SIMD 20 postcodes.

Most the free places available to Scots were taken up by students who got the grades needed in their Highers last week or to those given “unconditional” offers when they first applied. The clearing system allows youngsters who fell short in their grades to meet the offers they received to try to find a place elsewhere.

The clearing system accounts for about 1 per cent of the total number of university places, although the level of competition among Scots for the funded free places means a relatively small number of such slots are available to Scots.

Aberdeen University has awarded a year of free university accommodation to SIMD 20 students at a cost of some £130,000, and new information acquired through a Lib Dem Freedom of Information request shows Robert Gordon University is operating two SIMD-only schemes.

Glasgow University is also using the clearing system to help applicants from SIMD 20 areas get a place.

A spokesman for the University of Edinburgh said: “Clearing for Care Experienced and SIMD20 Scottish applicants is only one of the mechanisms we use to support widening participation. Each mechanism addresses a specific barrier to Higher Education.”